Last month, Dan Kahan of Yale University Law School released a study examining the cultural factors at play in popular reactions to rape cases. Kahan’s research question was straightforward: If a person voices “repeated verbal objections” to a sex act, is it rape?
In other words, who among us thinks that “no” really means “no,” and who thinks that “no” is just a handy excuse for loose women? As it turns out, knowing that “no” means “no” has little to do with your gender, and a lot to do with what you think about gender.
People Who Think “No” Means “No”: Men and women with an “egalitarian” worldview which “judges the character of men and women by a largely unitary measure, and treats female sexuality as a legitimate expression of individual autonomy.” Makes sense, right? Not to some:
People Who Think “No” Means “Maybe”: As it turns out, people who can’t tell the difference between “yes” and “no” are nevertheless very invested in maintaining differences between “men” and “women.” The people most likely to believe that a rape victim actually consented, even though she said “no”? Those with a “conservative, traditional, and hierarchical” worldview, marked by “highly differentiated and stratified gender roles.”
Among this group, older women were the most likely to pooh-pooh “no means no”: “Overall, women were no more or less likely to favor conviction than were men. However, women who subscribed to the hierarchical cultural style—particularly older women who did—were more inclined to form a pro-defendant view of the facts.”
BUT FIRST, some background: Kahan based his study on the Ironically Fucked-Up Rape Case of the Century, Commonwealth v. Berkowitz. The case surrounded a college sophomore girl and a college sophomore boy who got to know each other—platonically—through a “sexual-assault awareness lecture” entitled, I’m not fucking kidding, “Does ‘No’ Sometimes Mean ‘Yes’?”
Only weeks later, the content of that lecture would be tested when the girl entered the boy’s dorm room, and they got to talking:
[After a few minutes, the defendant] moved off the bed and down on the floor, and “kind of pushed [the victim] back with his body. It wasn’t a shove, it was just kind of a leaning-type of thing.” Next appellant “straddled” and started kissing the victim. The victim responded by saying, “Look, I gotta go. I’m going to meet [my boyfriend].” Then ap-pellant lifted up her shirt and bra and began fondling her. The victim then said “no.”
After roughly thirty seconds of kissing and fondling, appellant “un-did his pants and he kind of moved his body up a little bit.” The victim was still saying “no” but “really couldn’t move because [appellant] was shifting at [her] body so he was over [her].” Appellant then tried to put his penis in her mouth. The victim did not physically resist, but rather continued to verbally protest, saying “No, I gotta go, let me go,” in a “scolding” manner.
Ten or fifteen more seconds passed before the two rose to their feet. Appellant disregarded the victim’s continual complaints that she “had to go,” and instead walked two feet away to the door and locked it so that no one from the outside could enter. . . . The victim testified that she realized at the time that the lock was not of a type that could lock people inside the room.
Then, in the victim’s words, “[appellant] put me down on the bed. It was kind of like—he didn’t throw me on the bed. It’s hard to explain. It was kind of like a push but no. . . .” She did not bounce off the bed. “It wasn’t slow like a romantic kind of thing, but it wasn’t a fast shove either. It was kind of in the middle.”
Once the victim was on the bed, appellant began “straddling” her again while he undid the knot in her sweatpants. He then removed her sweatpants and underwear from one of her legs. The victim did not physically resist in any way while on the bed because appellant was on top of her, and she “couldn’t like go anywhere.” She did not scream out at anytime because, “[i]t was like a dream was happening or some-thing.”
Appellant then used one of his hands to “guide” his penis into her vagina. At that point, after appellant was inside her, the victim began saying “no, no to him softly in a moaning kind of way … because it was just so scary.” After about thirty seconds, appellant pulled out his penis and ejaculated onto the victim’s stomach.
Immediately thereafter, appellant got off the victim and said, “Wow, I guess we just got carried away.” To this the victim retorted, “No, we didn’t get carried away, you got carried away.” The victim then quickly dressed, grabbed her school books and raced downstairs to her boy-friend who was by then waiting for her in the lounge.
Once there, the victim began crying. Her boyfriend and she went up to his dorm room where, after watching the victim clean off appellant’s semen from her stomach, he called the police.
The defendant testified in his own behalf. He admitted that he initiate[d] the first physical contact, but added that the victim warmly responded to his advances by passionately returning his kisses. He conceded that she was continually “whispering … no’s,” but claimed that she did so while “amorously . . . passionately” moaning. In effect, he took such protests to be thinly veiled acts of encouragement.
Kahan’s study presented an almost identical account to study participants, and asked them to judge whether the incident constituted rape or not. 58 percent of people surveyed said they would have found the boy “guilty of rape.” 42 percent would not have found him guilty.